Following a Call to Serve His Country and His Students

For as long as he can remember, Stephen Nelson GS’22 has felt a call to serve. And when that call led him to the National Guard and a deployment to Afghanistan, he found the support to continue pursuing his goals to serve his students.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

October 01, 2021 | 11 a.m.

Stephen Nelson GS’22

Stephen Nelson GS’22

It took Stephen Nelson GS’22 longer than he expected to follow a lifelong calling to join the military. When he did, he was older than most of the soldiers he served with, and he had already built a career as a science teacher and coach. But when Nelson and his unit deployed in August of 2020, he didn’t have to put his goals to earn an M.A. in Special Education at Bethel University on hold. With support from his professors and staff at Bethel, he was able to continue his education while serving in Afghanistan. “The ability to stay on track has been just a huge weight off my shoulders,” he says. And now, he’s ready for the next step of his journey.

Nelson grew up in Byron, Minnesota, and he’s always felt called to join the military and serve his country. After his grandparents, father, brother, and many other relatives served, he knew the benefits. “I think there are so many valuable leadership lessons that you can translate into civilian life, and even into teaching,” he says. And Nelson, 35, vividly remembers 9/11, which happened when he was in high school. But he followed an unconventional path to the military. While earning a Bachelor of Science, he learned about ROTC scholarships late in his undergraduate studies. The same calling to serve led him to education. “For me, it’s giving back,” he says. After earning a teaching license, he started a career teaching science and coaching varsity football, basketball, and golf.

Years later, his desire to serve remained. Finally, Nelson found the right fit and enlisted in the 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery Regiment of the Iowa Army National Guard, and his unit is also attached to the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery of Minnesota National Guard. Around the same time, Nelson learned about Bethel through a respected fellow teacher—and recent Bethel grad. To Nelson, the lessons his colleague had learned from the program, along with her faith and the confidence she gained, stood out. This experience inspired Nelson to choose Bethel when he decided to seek a master’s degree. “The biggest advertisement is the people themselves,” Nelson says of Bethel.

Stephen Nelson GS’22

Stephen Nelson GS’22

Nelson’s educational benefits through the National Guard are helping him earn his degree. “One of the benefits to serving is it also helps pay for my current and past college expenses,” he says. Nelson was at first drawn to the Bethel M.A. in Special Education’s hybrid of online and face-to-face classes, but online courses soon became a necessity, due to the pandemic and his later deployment to Afghanistan.

His deployment presented both challenges and benefits to completing his coursework. Thanks to Bethel’s flexible online courses, Nelson continued work on his degree throughout his deployment. He enjoyed participating online through discussion threads, small group projects, virtual meetings, and various online platforms for dialogue and communication. Though his base had good Wi-Fi, he encountered outages, and there was a significant time difference. Nelson worked routine shifts in base defense running the counter rocket, artillery, and mortar—or C-RAM—weapon system, and his schedule allowed him free time when he could work on his courses. “The nice thing was that being able to do the program helped give me a break from the day-to-day routine,” he says.

Nelson’s professors were willing to help him work through challenges. Without cell service, he frequently communicated with the Business Office and others at Bethel over email. “They were just so helpful,” he says. “The support that I received made it almost seamless.” Nelson felt blessed and thankful for the flexibility from the M.A. in Special Education department, and he’s thankful for the help he also received from Bethel’s Office of Military and Veterans Services (OMVS), as they acted as a liaison between himself and others on campus.

“Bethel has been top-notch as far as working with veterans."

— Stephen Nelson GS'22

While deployed, Nelson received letters from the OMVS office, and the M.A. in Special Education department sent him a care package. “It was such a surprise,” he says. “That was just great encouragement.”

While overseas, Nelson also received a reminder of what drew him to teaching special education. To help with their writing skills, his former seventh- and eighth-grade special education students at St. Croix Preparatory Academy wrote Nelson letters. “That was probably the coolest thing to get their letters and see how much they had progressed,” he says. And he saw their appreciation for those who serve and acknowledgment of their sacrifices. In return, Nelson sent a flag flown on his base to the school. And after years of teaching science, Nelson decided to pursue a special education degree because he feels drawn to helping those with disabilities by dedicating extra time and resources to help them find success and inclusion. And he believes God calls us to advocate for those with disabilities. Throughout his M.A. in Special Education courses, he’s enjoyed how his faith drives his practice. The program has helped him rely not just on evidence-based best practices, but to use his faith as a foundation for his teaching.

Now home, Nelson returned to teaching at St. Croix Preparatory Academy, where he does co-teaching so those with disabilities learn in the same classroom as traditional students and enjoy the same opportunities. The school offers Nelson a great case study as he works on his thesis, exploring the academic outcomes of such co-teaching environments. He remains a proud National Guard member and plans to graduate from Bethel next spring. And he’s ready to start a new chapter home, as he is getting married in October.

Find the support you need at Bethel.

Bethel’s Office of Military and Veteran Services offers resources and support for currently-serving military members, veterans, and their families. Military benefits, grants, and scholarships make a Bethel degree a logical and accessible option for military members, veterans, and their families.

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